I didn’t love South Korea when I first arrived. When I did learn to, it was a beautiful thing. More than a great place to teach English, it is an exciting place to live. Home to endless conveniences and opportunities, it is a small country (geographically) with a huge influence and unique culture.
My life in Korea began in Wonju, a city of almost 400,000, about an hour-and-a-half bus ride east of Seoul.
My first week in Wonju, I was overwhelmed by the numbers of Americans, British, Canadians, and South Africans that I’d met. All teachers. All having lived there for 3, 4, 5, 10 years. It is an easy place to make friends, provided you aren’t exclusive to making friends with the Koreans who live there, to whom speaking English is usually a terrifying prospect (for the average person on the street–not everyone, of course). The teachers I’d met loved it in Wonju. They had been travelers at heart, with a lust to see the world. This sense had led them to this Korean city in the mountains.
“I might leave, but I’ll always come back here. This is home now,” a phrase that I would hear in many variations during my time in Korea. Some know right away, for others it takes a bit longer.
But, why so much love for Korea? Here are 10 reasons:
10. Small size, big culture – travel is easy and cheap
For me, a bus ticket to Seoul was about 7,000 won (around 6.60 USD or 7. 40 CAD) for a 1.5-hour ride. That was much more expensive than other lesser-known cities (still with populations exceeding a million) that came in around 3,000 or 4,000 won. Once you get to Seoul, you can spend a couple dollars to get pretty much anywhere by subway. But there’s a lot more to Korea than Seoul, and being a weekend warrior is easy and cheap. Going from one coast to another takes a couple of hours, and a trip from north to south can easily be made in a half-day.
9. Modern conveniences
South Korea is a fairly westernized country. It retains its own culture and Asian flair, but access to amenities you were used to finding back home is pretty readily available. Korea is more convenient than home in ways. Every food place delivers for free, and you can pretty much get anything delivered right to your door. You can even get someone to pick up your laundry and do it, then bring it back to your apartment–not that I ever took advantage of this.
8. Cost of living
I make more money in Canada, but somehow save less. This is because the money you make in Korea goes a lot farther. Everyday expenses are lower: groceries, a cup of coffee, internet, and utilities. A teacher in Korea can live a very comfortable lifestyle while saving money and traveling every weekend. Not a bad way to live.
7. Work a respectable job
It’s hard for millennials to find good work these days, even with a university degree. In Korea, you can use your education to get a respectable job with decent pay. Once upon a time, teachers got scammed in the country, ripped off by employers and ended up working in bad environments. Today, that isn’t the case (mostly). Nowadays, companies have reputations to uphold, and if you end up in a bad situation, it usually is possible to fix.
6. A shopper’s paradise
Korea is a great place to be female, or a lover of clothing and cosmetics in general. Koreans know how to dress, and easy access to fashionable clothing may also influence your own style. Quality Korean cosmetics and beauty products are cheap and plentiful. This is a place where you don’t have to spend a lot of money to be high maintenance, but you certainly have those pricier options. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Korean style, which is something you might want to put a little effort into if you don’t want to stand out more than you already will. There’s more than that, though. In South Korea, you can go shopping at high-fashion boutiques, and then visit markets on the streets selling cheap eats and traditional goods. Two worlds exist in one for shoppers, and it’s easy to take advantage of both.
5. The tourists haven’t arrived
Remember when I said that thing before about standing out? Around four sentences ago? Well, that’s because–assuming you are not just hanging around Seoul or other very large cities–you will probably stand out. I don’t mean to emphasize race, but as a very white, fair-haired, tall, average-sized woman, I was never more aware of my differences than in Korea. This starts out as kind of annoying: parents may point you out to their children, you are constantly stared at and the centre of attention no matter where you are. Then, you start to get comfortable, and may start to even miss it when you leave. When I came home to Canada, I felt lost in the crowd. I felt shy and plain, invisible. In Korea I was different. People noticed and paid attention to me, even if just because of my skin or hair or height. In terms of tourism, many international tourists seem only to visit Seoul or other big-name destinations, so it is very easy to find beautiful and cultural spots that are virtually crowd-free and untouched. Things aren’t commercialized like in some countries because tourism is not the biggest industry. Koreans are tourists within their own country, and it’s great to see people showing appreciation for their own home.
4. Korean Food
I never had Korean food before I went to Korea. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it. I knew kimchi and rice. Honestly, it took me some time to acquire the taste for Korean food, but once I did I was a goner. I have never dined out so much in my life–which is OK luckily, since restaurants are pretty cheap. Barbecue and bibimbap are great, of course, but there are so many unique flavours and different dishes that it is easy to eat a varied and adventurous diet.
3.The Korean Language
I’ll admit, my language acquisition in Korea was dismal and I definitely need more study. I came to Korea with the idea that it would be easy to pick up enough of the language to get by without really trying. I was wrong, I had trouble, I didn’t put in the work. But, that doesn’t mean I’ve given up. Hearing Korean most of the time everyday became comfortable, and I did pick up certain words and phrases without really trying. The truth is that Korean is a beautiful-sounding language even if you don’t understand what’s being said.
2. Diverse Culture and Landscape
You are never far from sandy beaches, tall mountains, forest temples, or vast cities of millions. You might think that visiting epic landscapes and spiritual sites on the weekends could get old. But, each place has its own unique history and elements that make it something special every time.
1. The People
I’ve heard it said that, compared to people from Southeast Asia, Koreans are cold. To me, this is a false stereotype. It’s true, this isn’t “the land of smiles,” and many Koreans tend to keep a bit more to themselves, to their group of friends that they know. However, I’ve met many Koreans that would go out of their way to help out a foreign worker or visitor, and have genuine interactions. I can’t say that I’ve found Koreans to be any less welcoming than the majority of Canadians.
I’ll always be nostalgic for the year I lived in Korea, and often think of going back some day (which may be more than just a thought in the future!). To read more on our life and adventures in Korea, visit Tim’s blog here.
Thanks for reading!